“Their fans are second to none,” said Lehman. “That's as sports savvy a town as you are going to find. The city has so much to offer. Detroit catches a bad rap for what the city has kind of become lately.
“I really appreciate the Ford family for drafting me. They do so much for that team and that city. I wish things would have turned out better without the injury but I really enjoyed my time up there.”
The Heisman winners with Oklahoma ties made an impact but never experienced an extended playoff run. Still, they rave about Lions' fans' loyalty considering Detroit has registered only one playoff win the past 54 years. The Lions are 1-10 in the playoffs since 1958.
In 2008, Detroit became the only team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule to finish 0-16.
“When I got there in 1980 they were coming off a 2-14 season and were still second in the league in attendance,” Sims said. “They love the Lions. Anywhere you go in Michigan, it's the whole state. It's still that way today.”
Detroit is one of only four franchises to never play in the Super Bowl. The Lions made the playoffs last season but are a long shot this year. Lehman, though, said the Lions should be a viable playoff contender in the foreseeable future.
“They finally have a top quarterback in Matthew Stafford,” Lehman said. “He has a chance to be one of those elite quarterbacks. And they have a lot of great weapons around him. (Wide receiver) Calvin Johnson as good as there is in football.”
Owens was the first Lions running back to rush for 1,000 yards. Sims was second. Sanders and Sims rank 1-2 in Lions history in rushing yards. Sanders, of course, is the third leading rusher in NFL history behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.
Lehman hasn't been back to Detroit since he played for the Lions. Owens on occasion returns. Sims, who retired in 1986 after he also suffered a career-ending knee injury, returns to Michigan five or six times a year.
Sims lives in Dallas but recently opened his second barbecue restaurant in the Detroit area. His plan is to build around 20 Billy Sims BBQ franchises in Michigan as he expands the chain beyond 25 restaurants in Oklahoma and two in Missouri.
“I've always loved it up there,” Sims said. “The people are great. I've always said the NFL is all about the fans because without them you are nobody.”
When the Lions host the Houston Texans on Thursday, Pettigrew said there's one thing that's missing.
“The Thanksgiving game is such a really cool tradition, but we haven't won one since I've been here,” Pettigrew said. “This year I'd like to win one.”